Walter Benjamin: the Intellectual in a Straw Hat

[Paper presented at Workshop on ‘Role of Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century’, 18 August 1998, The University of Haifa, Israel. (6th ISSEI Conference)]


"... it is not private thinking but ... the art of thinking in other people's heads that is decisive".


The case of Walter Benjamin provides a fascinating instance of an intellectual active during the 1920s and 1930s who was both part of his times, and at odds with many elements in his milieu. His contribution to the intellectual life of Europe remains enduring, yet it won recognition for itself largely in a posthumous way. His essays are richly suggestive, yet their insights remain fragmentary and fugitive. If his accomplishments are compared with the more finished oeuvre of his friend Theodor Adorno, it is tempting to see Benjamin's work as contradictory or antinomial in its oscillation between a Marxist materialism and an Hebraic Messianism. Benjamin was a Jew who suffered all the consequences of his family origins, but found himself unwilling to leave Europe, either for Israel (like his friend Gershom Scholem), or for the Anglophone West (like Adorno). His gaze remained transfixed by the ruins of what he saw as the material culture of nineteenth century Europe, yet his vision of how technology transformed modes of artistic production continues to condition how we see those modes affecting the global cultures of our times.

Benjamin's case illustrates how, in any culture or community, the intellectual subsists ambivalently between profession and vocation. A man of scholastic disposition, he was forced to live and work outside the academy he failed to enter. His case exemplifies the predicament of the intellectual pulled in two directions: towards intellectual autonomy, and intellectual labour in the condition of alienation and exile. Simultaneously to suffer the compulsive force of both polarities was Benjamin's peculiar fate, and part of the fascination of his work.

The polarization between autonomy and commitment can be examined in the context of several European discourses on the role of the intellectual in society. For Gramsci, in the 1920s, the notion of autonomy was empty of content. He associated it with idealist philosophy, as "the expression of that social utopia".1 Adorno was less willing to dismiss it out of hand, because the "notion of the free expression of opinion, indeed, that of intellectual freedom itself in bourgeois society" always has "its own dialectic".2 More recently, Pierre Bourdieu has remarked that "The intellectual is constituted by intervening in the political field in the name of autonomy and of the specific values of a field of cultural production which has attained a high degree of independence with respect to various powers".3

Leo Lowenthal has invoked Benjamin's affiliation with a distinguished generation of German-Jewish exiles and emigrés (which included Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Ernst Bloch, Siegfried Kracaeur, Max Horkheimer, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and others), to claim as Benjamin's belief that there was no such thing as the "`free-floating' intellect—an idealized concept fashionable at the time in Karl Mannheim's coinage; no such thing as the so-called classless intellectual; no such thing as the `organic' intellectual à la Gramsci, nor even any such thing as the so-called intelligentsia".4 Benjamin's relation to his Jewish background was, in some respects, oppositional. Scholem described it as "a rejection of our environment-which was basically the German Jewish assimilated middle class...".5 This rejection led Scholem to Judaism; Benjamin, to an unconsoled isolation. He had a "natural addiction to pessimism",6 and an affinity for the Kafka who said that "We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God's head".7 If your God is given to suicidal thoughts, it may be feared that you might forgive yourself for being one of the forms of His despair. With the rise to power of Nazism in Germany, Benjamin's description of Kafka came to apply to his own plight: "Exile-his exile-has gained control over him".8 Isolation became the sombre underside of his enforced `autonomy'. Anson Rabinbach has remarked that Benjamin lived under the shadow of the Kabbalistic belief that "exile or galut is the most fundamental condition of existence.... All Existence, including God, subsists in galut".9 Rabinbach characterizes the Jewish-German intellectuals of that generation with "a spiritual radicalism that constituted a Jewishness without doctrinal Judaism".10

Lest Benjamin get assimilated too easily into this Messianic-Judaic impulse, it is necessary to remember his caveat: "For me, Jewishness is not in any case an end in itself but the noble bearer and representative of the intellect".11 As for the 1930s conjunction between the Jewish and the German, he suggested that: "a healthy complementarity of the noble nature of both peoples today requires a silence about their ties to each other".12 Lowenthal remarks gloomily that "Just as the German university and later the fascist state drove him away, Benjamin was from the outset never at peace with the institutions of the cultural establishment".13

Regardless of all these marginalizations—or perhaps, because of them—Benjamin showed a persistent commitment to the idea of political commitment throughout the 1920s and 1930s. This was to thwart Scholem, who had hoped that Benjamin could discover something like his own Zionism; while it delighted Brecht and his associate, Asja Lacis, who treated themselves as joint Mephistopheles in a tug-of-war over Benjamin. In "The Author as Producer" (1934), Benjamin condemned the "bourgeois writer of entertainment literature" for being blind to the choice between autonomy and commitment. The committed writer should reject the delusion of autonomy for a more "tendentious" approach.14 Stubborness about this position is not difficult to comprehend in an intellectual of the period who was frustrated by the Left almost as much as he was disgusted by the Right. The failure of the Left was blamed on the pursuit of revolutionary ideals on the basis of reactionary premises and complacent class affiliations, indifferent to the productive process. Benjamin gave the credit for this aperçu to Brecht.

For the transformation of the forms and instruments of production in the way desired by a progressive intelligentsia–that is, one interested in freeing the means of production and serving the class struggle–Brecht coined the term Umfunktionierung [functional transformation].15

When the writer failed in his revolutionary function, he ended up as a mere hack, "the man who abstains in principle from alienating the productive apparatus from the ruling class by improving it in ways serving the interests of socialism".16 But Brecht complained that Benjamin's analysis "applied to artists of only one type, the writer of the upper bourgeoisie".17 This touches upon another problem. How could a man not of the proletariat represent them? Benjamin believed that there was no shortcut from the individual's rootedness in his own class to the secularized Messianism of a classless society. This ought to have deterred an inverted hagiography, but many have succumbed to the temptation. Lowenthal, for instance, first condemns Benjamin for not possessing the temperament to cope with his circumstances; then commemorates his life as the "cruel allegory of failure" of "the figure in the fringe who refuses to take part".18

But take part is precisely what Benjamin did, even if from the fringe, which he refused to jump off—whether to the USA or to Israel. He rejected the mode of thinking which first converted the secularised Messianism of Marx's classless society into an "ideal", and then postponed the realization of that "ideal" into an "endless task" .19 His resistance to such deferrals showed little that was pessimistic. "At no moment during my emigration did I relinquish the hope of coming back", Adorno recollected in 1965.20 Meanwhile, Benjamin, infiltrated redemptive possibilities into his work for today, even as he succumbed to death in his corner of Europe. They remain subsidized by his conviction that "the Kingdom of God is not the telos of the historical dynamic".21 The juggernaut of that dynamic could only repress the belief that "there is not a single moment that does not carry with it its own revolutionary opportunity".22 Benjamin's final letter to Scholem described the two of them as "old Bedouins" in the "desert landscape of the present", for whom "Every line we succeed in publishing today—no matter how uncertain the future to which we entrust it—is a victory wrenched from the powers of darkness".23

Benjamin may have been more hopeful of socialism than Brecht, of whom Adorno remarked that "when he was honest with himself he was au fond more interested in the theatre than in changing the world".24 The three differed in that Brecht was committed to the proletariat, Adorno to the community of art, and Benjamin to reconciling the antinomy. His refusal to separate the two commitments make his work the site of a more determined struggle than Brecht's trenchant disingenuities.

Before returning to Benjamin, I would like to illustrate the tendency to romanticize exile with a more recent and polemical critic than Benjamin. In his Reith lectures, Representations of the Intellectual (1994), Edward Said extols the ideal of autonomy. The interest of his position is that it transforms "exile into a normative mode of being".25 This transformation derives sustenance from exemplary figures like Adorno. We associate the condition of exile—whether voluntary (James Joyce) or involuntary (Benjamin)—with melancholia, isolation and marginalization. For Said, however, there are several—quite paradoxical—advantages to exile. Firstly, the exile is always sceptical, since he must survive in destabilizing circumstances. Secondly, the exile sees "things not simply as they are, but as they have come to be that way".26 Thirdly, exile liberates the intellectual from conventional preoccupations. In brief, exile gives Said's intellectual a position oblique to society. In that condition, the intellectual becomes a conscientious critic of society, a champion of unorthodoxies and principles, and an antidote to the compromises of the assimilated insider. Did Benjamin support this role for the intellectual? He would have endorsed the obliquity of critique; but not the valorization of exile. The suspicion that hovers over Benjamin is whether he was more committed to the idea of commitment than he had clues on how to realize it in praxis. For instance, he endorsed Aragon's injunction that "The revolutionary intellectual appears first and foremost as the betrayer of his class of origin", but subsisted largely on the economic resources available to him through his friends and family associations.27

In 1968, when Foucault gave an exposition of his method of intellectual inquiry, he listed a series of procedures common to the history of ideas, which he had rejected. These included the notion of development, of the spirit of the age, of the notional unities conferred on discontinuity by the book and the oeuvre, of the search for a unitary subject or consciousness in the mind of the author, and so on.28 It is curious, though not surprising, that Benjamin had endorsed similar views more than thirty years before Foucault. His source was Engels, who had objected to the representation of the history of ideas in terms of the dogma of development. Benjamin acknowledged being overpowered by "the explosive power of these thoughts",29 just as he had once been overcome by Asja Lacis: "For had she touched me with the match of her eyes, I should have gone up like a magazine".30

Violence, rupture, and disjunction were never far from Benjamin's thought. The paradox that rupture could be progressive is the most original aspect of his own force as an intellectual. One of the consequences of the value he placed on disruption is his call for the intellectual as writer to transform the technical means of production. Benjamin illustrated his thesis with three examples. One was the rupture created by Dada and Surrealism in the years after the First World War, by splintering the marmoreal work of art with "the tiniest authentic fragment of daily life". The second was the technique of breaching "the barrier between writing and the image". This was what the progressive photographer could do (for the 1930s): "to give his picture the caption that wrenches it from modish commerce and gives it a revolutionary useful value".31 The third example was Brecht's epic theatre. Its value for Benjamin was that it practiced many forms of "interruption":32 it abandoned the development of plot for the portrayal of situations; its superimposed montage disrupted the context in which it was inserted; it rejected illusionism; and it replaced the reproduction of situations for their discovery.

"A gentleman in a straw hat, at a slight angle to the universe", that is how E.M. Forster described the Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy. There are at least four obvious features to this description–being a gentleman, wearing a hat, choosing to wear one made of straw, and wearing it at an angle to the universe. I should like to conclude by applying each of these four features to of Benjamin. Being a gentleman: Benjamin could hardly help that. When Adorno wanted to contrast Kafka and Benjamin, he picked on "urbanity" as the principal feature that distinguished his friend.33 It was a matter of comportment: the natural courtesy with which, for instance, Scholem was admonished in 1934 for his lack of circumspection in risking the degeneration of their correspondence as friends into a mere controversy.34 Wearing a hat: one wears a hat when outdoors. Benjamin moved restlessly from city to city, all over Europe, homeless and at home in every metropolitan environment, excited at the idea of working out a poetics of dispossession, not as a unique predicament, but as the defining trait of modernity. Choosing to wear a straw hat: you have to drop formality and the ensemble of solemnity that certain forms of civility cannot abandon. To wear a straw hat while dressed like a gentleman is to wear your civility with a difference. When Benjamin abandoned the formality and weight of the book for the nimbleness and modesty of the essay, the professor manqué became the opportune journalist, translator, and freelancer. Wearing a hat at an angle to the universe: it oftwn piqued Benjamin's friends that he wore his Messianism, and his Marxism, each with a tilt. He never worked out how the two were to be held together; but he never abandoned either. When pressed by an unsympathetic Scholem into defending his contradictory commitments, in May 1934, Benjamin offered a revealing aside:

I have only seldom made the attempt... to express the whole contradictory grounds from which those convictions arise.... a credo is the last thing my communism resorts to.... it represents the obvious, reasoned attempt on the part of a man who is completely or almost completely deprived of any means of production to proclaim his right to them, both in his thinking and in his life.35

This was the face dignity put on, to meet the storm of unreason with which the Zeitgeist "has set up markers in the desert landscape",36 while it grieved inwardly lest from the dust of history should rise only a mirage of thirst.


1 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 8.

2 Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1981), 20.

3 Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure in the Literary Field. trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 129.

4 Leo Lowenthal, "The Integrity of the Intellectual: In Memory of Walter Benjamin", in Gary Smith (ed.), Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 252.

5 Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), 21.

6 Anson Rabinbach, "Introduction", The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 1932-1940, ed. Gershom Scholem, trans. Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), xxxv.

7 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 116.

8 Benjamin, Illuminations, 126.

9 Anson Rabinbach, "Introduction", xiii.

10 Ibid., xv.

11 Ibid., x.

12 Quoted in Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, 310.

13 Leo Lowenthal, "The Integrity of the Intellectual: In Memory of Walter Benjamin", 251.

14 Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Aphorisms, Essays and Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York and London: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovitch, 1978), 220.

15 Walter Benjamin, "Conversations with Brecht", in Aesthetics and Politics, Ernest Bloch, Georg Lukács, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, trans. Ronald Taylor (London and New York: Verso, 1977), 86.

16 Walter Benjamin, Reflections, 229.

17 Walter Benjamin, "Conversations with Brecht", 86.

18 Lowenthal, "The Integrity of the Intellectual", 252, 254.

                            19 Ibid., 257.

20 Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 209.

21 Benjamin, Reflections, 312.

22 Benjamin, quoted in Lowenthal, 257.

23 The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 1932-1940, ed. Gershom Scholem, trans. Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 262.

24 Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, 275.

25 Asha Vardharajan, Exotic Parodies: Subjectivity in Adorno, Said and Spivak (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 134.

26 Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (London: Vintage, 1994), 45.

27 Benjamin, Reflections, 237.

28 Michel Foucault, "On the archaeology of the sciences: response to the Epistemology Circle", in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology (Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984), Volume II, ed. James D. Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley et al. (New York: The New Press, 1998), 300-05.

29 Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London: Verso, 1979), 351.

                           30 Ibid., 69.

31 Benjamin, Reflections, 230.

32 Ibid., 234.

33 Adorno, Prisms, 235.

34 Benjamin, The Correspondence, ed. Scholem 1989, 109.

35 Ibid., 110.

36 Ibid., 262.